If you spend your time hunting for the lesser-known novels of Balzac, you are probably obsessive.
There are approximately 90 novels, novellas, and short stories in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy.
And though most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg, you’re lucky if you find hard copies of Pere Goriot or Eugenie Grandet in bookstores.
Perhaps Balzac is out of fashion.
Balzac was a mercilessly observant novelist whose exuberant prose, riveting plots, and outrageous characters enthrall readers, but who also instructs in the how-tos and perils of social climbing and commerce.
Need to know something about the business world? Try Balzac.
Lost Illusions, one of his masterpieces, is in many ways a diatribe against publishing.
Balzac knew the printing, publishing, and writing world inside-out. In 1825, he started his own printing business and published volumes by Moliere and La Fontaine. In 1828, the business smashed, and he was in massive debt to his family. As a journalist and novelist, he had already learned the art of writing for money. His friend, Auguste Lepoitevin, a hard-boiled, satirical journalist, had helped him get his start: Balzac agreed to write several stories, which Lepoitevein would polish and sell to publishers. (Balzac wrote three novels with Leopoitevin.)
Leopoitevin boasted that he’d given many writers their start.
Take little old Balzac–he’s one of mine! He and I made loads of plans together! I wrote a fair few novels with him–his worst novels, I’ll grant him that….He was like a little cannonball…”
Lost Illusions is largely inspired by Balzac’s experiences with Leopoitevin (and others like him). The hero, Lucien Chardon, a writer, grows up in Angoulême. He is adored by his best friend, David Séchard, a printer, who marries Lucien’s sister Eve. The couple take out enormous loans to support Lucien, thinking he is a genius.
Lucien moves to Paris when his married girlfriend, Mme de Bargeton (Louise), a bored, romantic, wealthy woman, insists that he accompany her. But in Paris Louise drops her young lover as soon as she sees that he is ill-dressed and too immature to flourish in high society.
Lucien, handsome, witty, and proud, also considers Louise countrified. Abandoned and poor, Lucien becomes zealously industrious, writing a historical novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott. His friends are other serious writers and artists, and they have brilliant, lively discussions in their garrets.
Then Lucien meets a journalist, Lousteau, who teaches him how to make a living by glib, gossipy satires and reviews. He learns to write hyperbolic praise or witty condemnations of books and plays, according to the payment of the publisher or theater managers. He also receives books and theater tickets, which he sells for extra money. And he is very excited by the double-dealing, which doesn’t seem to him unethical, though he is warned by his artist friends that it will boomerang and hurt him.
By the way, there apparently were some good newspapers in Paris, but Balzac concentrates on the small journals that trafficked in satire, gossip, and scandal. He may have had a bone to pick: some of the journals published bad reviews of his novels.
In one of Balzac’s polemics against journalism in Lost Illusions, a group of movers and shakers in publishing and the theater discuss the corruption of journalism. One exclaims,
Instead of being a priestly function, the newspaper…is becoming merely a trade; and like all trades it has neither faith nor principles. Every newspaper is, as Blondet says, a shop which sells to the public whatever shades of opinion it wants. If there were a journal for hunchbacks, it would prove night and morning how handsome, how good-natured, how necessary hunchbacks are. A journal is no longer concerned to enlighten, but to flatter public opinion. Consequently, in due course, all journals will be treacherous, hypocritical, infamous, mendacious, murderous; they’ll kill systems, ideas and men, and thrive on it.”
Lucien falls in love with an actress, Coralie, and they are happy until he gambles away their money. His cruel, witty journalism has alienated so many that there is much schadenfreude among his competitors and adversaries. The aristocrats, particularly Louise, who has been skewered in the press by friends of Lucien, are out to get him and destroy his reputation.
The last part of the novel is set in Angoulême, where Lucien finally returns. Brilliant David, hopelessly in debt because of loans to Lucien, is a blundering businessman who spends most of his time trying to invent a new kind of paper while Eve struggles to keep the printing shop open. Another printing shop is trying put them out of business.
Lost Illusions details the avarice and business practices that destroy poetry, novels, reportage, and reviews. In the story of the fall of Lucien (whose fall is not unlike that of Lucifer, though Lucien is the tempted, not the tempter), Balzac records the fall of the publishing industry (as he sees it). But money isn’t everything, and a few characters, like David and Eve, manage to escape the papery world.